Adjusting the Career Counseling Process for Individuals with Non-Apparent Disabilities

As the number of individuals in the United States with disabilities, currently ~50 million, continues to grow (Brault, 2012), the population of people with non-apparent disabilities – issues that are not necessarily visible to others – is also expected to expand. While any person living with a disability may be subject to social stigmas, including assumptions about their intelligence, capabilities, and interests, those with non-apparent disabilities can face specific challenges. Those with learning and psychiatric disabilities can be unfairly characterized as lazy, dramatic, or lacking discipline. Symptoms of these disabilities may be trivialized by those around them, and many people with non-apparent disabilities seek to ease social stigma by attempting to “pass” as a person without a disability (Triano, 2004). In the working world, this may mean they choose not to disclose their disability or request accommodations from employers. However, it is critical that career counselors working with these individuals find ways to support these clients in navigating professional situations that may prove particularly difficult.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are defined as any disability in processing information, including difficulties with reading, writing, math skills, organization, abstract reasoning, memory, or attention (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014). Career counselors working with clients with learning disabilities may notice planning and communication challenges. For example, it may take an individual several seconds to formulate verbal responses to counseling questions. While working with these clients, counselors should consider using and suggesting practical supportive strategies such as electronic calendars or color-coded systems for organizing assignments. These tools are often low-cost or free, and can prove valuable for clients both during the counseling process and while on the job. Counselors should also try to provide detailed notes that can be read carefully after each meeting, including outlining next steps. Reducing time pressures whenever possible is also helpful, such as providing several weeks of notice before upcoming assignment deadlines, allowing clients to pace themselves. Lastly, counselors may want to reduce distractions in their offices, by silencing phones and electronic reminders, for maximum appointment productivity.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders encompass two characteristics: repetitive or unusual behavior, and social communication challenges. Counselors may notice that clients from this population have difficulty understanding non-verbal cues, and make poor eye contact. They may prefer routines and have difficulty with transitions or unexpected changes (Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2015). While counseling within this population, counselors should be concrete about their expectations and use directive language. Stress management techniques are essential, especially in anticipating how the client will deal with change and uncertainty in pursuing their professional goals. Career counselors can also assist with demystifying the job application process, exploring and role-playing some of the more challenging social requirements, such as networking and interviewing.

Psychiatric Disabilities

Psychiatric disabilities include mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These disabilities are often very challenging because symptoms can be unpredictable and even debilitating. Psychiatric disabilities are heavily stigmatized in our country, which may discourage individuals from disclosing their disability both to their potential employer and to their counselors (Young, 2013). When working with clients with psychiatric disabilities, counselors should take care to use positive redirection and reinforcement liberally. For example, if a client expresses frustration that they will “never be able to get a job,” the counselor may choose to both validate the client’s experience and remind the client of the progress they have made to date. Lastly, clients with difficulty managing stress or maintaining attention may benefit from multiple brief counseling sessions, versus more sporadic longer sessions.

Chronic Health Conditions

Many chronic health conditions, such epilepsy, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer, may not always be visible, but they can greatly impact an individuals’ ability to function professionally. While working with these clients, counselors should inquire as to how they can be most helpful in the event of a medical emergency during a session. Clients may also find it useful to have the option of meeting via Skype, email, or phone instead of in-person whenever their symptoms are exacerbated. Lastly, role-playing can be useful in helping clients practice disclosing their illness and requesting accommodations in the workplace. They may need help thinking through how to best word a time-off request for frequent medical appointments, or fielding questions from colleagues like “Why aren’t you taking the stairs?” or “Why do you have a handicapped parking space?” (Young, 2013).

Universal Design

To round out these specific recommendations, the following tips can be utilized when working with clients with any disability:

  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations, idioms, and sarcasm. Be clear and direct, as these nuanced communication styles may make it more difficult for clients to understand your advice and intentions.
  • Avoid emotionally-charged descriptions and euphemisms. Phrases that depict a disability in a negative light, such as “troubled” or “crippled,” can be offensive. Similarly, euphemisms such as “dif-abilities” or “differently-abled,” while well-meaning, can reinforce the notion that disabilities cannot be discussed in a clear, straightforward manner. Again, clear and direct communication is best.
  • Provide materials electronically and in writing. Send your client detailed notes of your meeting and clear instructions for their next steps, when possible. Emails have the advantage of being accessible to speech-to-text and speech-reading software. If you host workshops or create webinars a student or client may want to review, making recorded presentation materials available in both audio-only and written transcript formats provides greatest accessibility.
  • Utilize referrals. Develop relationships with community-providers for mental health services, vocational rehabilitation for ease of referral. Create a list of disability-specific resources, such as, to support clients with their career goals.

Counselors in all settings can expect to assist clients with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities, as the disability population in the U.S. continues to grow. However, a few small adjustments and thoughtful techniques can make the career counseling process more inclusive and productive for both counselor and client.


Janine M. Rowe, MSEd., NCC, is a career counselor and Assistant Director of Disability Services at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. In addition to providing developmental career counseling, she provides education and advocacy for students with disabilities and consults with employers hiring individuals with disabilities. Janine can be reached at

This entry was posted in Working with Disabilities.